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Space Oddity

Annex Theater turns a surreal, landmark animated sci-fi movie into a live-stage experience

Draags (background) and Oms (foreground) just try to get along in fantastic planet.

By Emma Brodie | Posted 4/14/2010

Rehearsal for Annex Theater's current production begins the same as rehearsal for any stage production. Director Evan Moritz gathers the actors onstage and, after briefly outlining the evening's plan, begins warming them up. The actors, most of whom are part of Annex's core group of eight members, are clearly at ease with each other as they partake in the series of shakes, runs, and yells. Moritz doesn't try to stop the goofiness; in fact, he encourages it. With two weeks until opening, the actors know their lines and their blocking; all that's left is to make it gel.

Of course, Annex's current project, like most Annex productions, isn't just any stage production. It's a live-theater adaptation of Fantastic Planet, the 1973 animated French movie about humans living in a distant world under the rule of an alien master race. This production features a nine-member cast, uses a 10-piece band, and includes a projectionist, all of whom are combining forces to create a multilevel experience. The man at the center of it all is Moritz.

"I think of being a director in the same way I think of being an actor in that your main tool is listening," Moritz says later. "I enjoy having the cast talk back to me during the process."

It's not hard to see what he means. About a half hour after warm-ups, rehearsal is well underway. The cast is tackling a tricky scene in which two Draags (members of the alien master race) are in a meeting about exterminating the Oms (aka humans) from their planet. Walking and talking as though submerged in molasses, arms and legs waving like tendrils of a giant squid, the actors recite their lines in an airy monotone.

Moritz takes it all in, stopping the actors when they have finished their dialogue. "That was good guys," he says. "Except Katherine, I'm not sure why you're saying your lines in a British accent. And Josh, when you say your line, 'Must we kill all the Oms?' can you come farther downstage?"

Josh Van Horne obliges, grooving his way to the front of the stage behind a massive pillar. When he hears his cue, he pulls himself around the edge of the post and says, in a voice that is a cross between David Bowie and Rick Astley, "Must we kill all the Oms?"

The entire cast erupts in laughter and looks toward Moritz as though for disapproval. "Actually I kind of like that," he says. "Doesn't the 5th dimension have a pillar? Let's keep it."

"The way I see it, the directorial role is to see an idea and grab it, while realizing if someone is just running off on a jokey idea," Moritz says later. "Humor is a weird element in a play like this. We need to show that we're not going to take ourselves too seriously."

Indeed, according to Tim Paggi, the play's adapter and lead actor, someone would have to have a sense of humor to take on this project--or else be plumb crazy. "FP contains huge amounts of psychedelic imagery, whole alien worlds, and shifts in scale that would make the project seem impossible to many theater artists," Paggi says. "But it's always been our intent at the Annex Theater to create work that shatters boundaries, and often that is done with fresh approaches to what constitutes a play."

Since Annex was formed Jan. 1, 2008, the company has produced a multitude of diverse works, ranging from classics such as Dr. Faustus and Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros to other adaptations such as Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan and Hanna-Barbera cartoons. "The key for a show like this, where everything is so visual, is to throw all the crayons out of the box and say, 'OK, we can use projection lighting, we can use a 10-piece band, we can have a few puppets up there,'" Moritz says. "It really takes everything in your theatrical bag of tricks. And it's a matter of saying right from the beginning, OK, we need a projectionist."

The projectionist is Shana Palmer, a one-woman show armed with many materials, ideas, and a very broken-in camcorder/projector apparatus. The responsibility of portraying the massive "shifts in scale" and the vastly different terrains within the play falls primarily to her. In one scene, for example, the main character, Terr, goes outside for the first time and discovers that if he stands still for too long, paralyzing crystals begin to form around him unless he whistles.

Palmer's solution to the problem of the encroaching and disappearing crystals? "Cellophane!" she says triumphantly, shoving crumpled pieces of pink plastic under the camera lens. As the actors move onstage, the enormous gleaming crystals creep toward them and pull back with every cue on the projector screen behind.

"Shana didn't want to do prerecorded stuff for the show," Moritz says. "She wanted to interact with the actors and be a part of the performance. I think that is the goal you want to reach for every person who designs the show, that they're such an integral part of the process that they become a character themselves."

This is especially apt for Fantastic Planet, considering that a good 40 percent of the original animation consisted of wide shots of the world itself. The film (La Planete Sauvage in the original French) tells the story of Terr, an Om who manages to breach the social confines of his world and liberate all the Oms, who are either living in small savage colonies or as the tame captives of the Draags. The Draags, 100 times larger than the Oms, are the predominant species of the planet. Their time moves extremely slowly--one Draag week is equivalent to one Om year--and they devote most of their existence to mysterious meditation rituals in which their actual consciousness can be seen departing their body in the form of pink bubbles.

At a later dress rehearsal, it is as though costume designers Sue MacCorkle and Sarah Matson actually went into the movie and pulled the costumes out into the real world. Dressed from head to toe in colored spandex unitards, the actors portraying Draags talk through enormous cardboard heads with mobile mouths. The pink meditation bubbles take the form of lollipop-like cutouts that the actors hold above their heads.

Drum cases, music stands, and other remnants of the 10-piece band headed by Dan Breen* sit in front of the stage as actors help hoist the projections screen onto its frame. The band will weave themes from the original score into the production, which should last about an hour. "Ideally, what we want are really smooth transitions with the music as this slow, gooey, driving force that really pushes all the way through," Moritz says.

It's hard to imagine that the entire set will be packed for tour to Philadelphia, New York, and Providence after Transmodern. Surveying the stage, Moritz considers the dynamically different aspects of the production and how harmoniously they are coming together with a knowing glint in his eye.

"So many times directors will lean on the book--when you're doing Hamlet everyone advises you to 'go back to Shakespeare,'" Moritz says. "This approach is 'go back to the visual, go back to the sound.' That's the amazing thing about theater, its ability to incorporate difference as the fundamental instrument in the art."

Corrrection: This story initially misidentified bandleader Dan Breen as Dan Green.

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